Oct 23, 2019

Birdie in the Cage

People have been doing the square dance since before the Declaration of Independence. But does that mean it should be THE American folk dance? That question took us on a journey from Appalachian front porches, to dance classes across our nation, to the halls of Congress, and finally a Kansas City convention center. And along the way, we uncovered a secret history of square dancing that made us see how much of our national identity we could stuff into that square, and what it means for a dance to be of the people, by the people, and for the people. 

Special thanks to Jim Mayo, Claude Fowler, Paul Gifford, Jim Maczko, Jim Davis, Paul Moore, Jack Pladdys, Mary Jane Wegener, Kinsey Brooke and Connie Keener. 

This episode was reported by Tracie Hunte and produced by Annie McEwen, Tracie Hunte, and Matt Kielty. Mix by Jeremy Bloom.

Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate

 

Check out Phil Jamison's book,  “Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics: Roots and Branches of Southern Appalachian Dance

Watch this 1948 Lucky Strike Cigarette Square Dancing Commercial

A rare image of Black Square Dancers in 1948

The Square Dance History Project

Read “America’s Wholesome Square Dancing Tradition is a Tool of White Supremacy,” by Robyn Pennachia for Quartz

And Pennachia’s original Twitter thread

Read “The State Folk Dance Conspiracy: Fabricating a National Folk Dance,” by Julianne Mangin

 

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Intro 1

Wait, wait your listening... (laughs)

Intro 2

Okay.

Jad Abumrad

All right.

Intro 2

Okay.

Jad Abumrad

All right.

Intro 2

You're-

Intro 1

... listening-

Intro 2

... to RadioLab.

Intro 1

RadioLab.

Intro 2

From...

Intro 1

WNYC.

Intro 2

C?

Intro 1

Yep.

Jad Abumrad

Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad. This is RadioLab. As you may know, I have been, uh, working on a series about Dolly Parton. It's called Dolly Parton's America, uh, which you can hear, uh, if you go to DollyPartonsAmerica.com or you go to iTunes or all the other places and search for Dolly Parton's America. And the whole thing, uh, is kind of an attempt to look at who we are as a country through the lens of this one singer songwriter. But...

Alex Kramer

So everybody, just find a partner.

Jad Abumrad

While I was working on that...

Alex Kramer

And if you don't know them, that's fine. You can just walk up to somebody and say, "Hi, I'm so-and-so. Will you dance with me?"

Jad Abumrad

Our reporter Tracie Hunte was stumbling into a similar set of questions about America and Americanness, but-

Alex Kramer

If anybody needs a partner, just raise your hand and then look around for other hands that are up.

Jad Abumrad

... in her case it was through a dance.

Tracie Hunte

Here we go.

Alex Kramer

Join hands and circle left. Back to the right, don't take all night.

Jad Abumrad

A little while ago, Tracie and I threw a dance party over at a place called The Bell House. That's in Brooklyn. We had a live band.

Alex Kramer

All the way back left hand star.

Jad Abumrad

We had a caller named Alex Kramer. We swung our partners round and round.

Alex Kramer

You swing mine, and I'll swing yours.

Jad Abumrad

We do-si-doed. We dove for the clam.

Alex Kramer

I'll swing mine, you swing yours.

Jad Abumrad

We might have even shot through the hold in the old tin can.

Alex Kramer

Join hands in that pretty little ring. One couple make an arch. Duck for the oyster.

Jad Abumrad

There were about 100 of us there that night, learning the very American art of... of square dancing. But, but, but, you might be asking, wh- why'd we do this? Why would RadioLab do a square dancing even in Brooklyn in 2019? Well, it's Tracie's fault.

Tracie Hunte

Why can't I hear anything? Oh! (laughs) It's not plugged in.

Jad Abumrad

Oh. It all goes back...

Tracie Hunte

I need to find a frickin'-

Jad Abumrad

Um...

Tracie Hunte

... adaptor to the... Oh here's, here they are.

Jad Abumrad

... to a conversation Tracie and I had in the studio before we ever got up on stage together.

Tracie Hunte

Okay, um, so, square dancing.

Jad Abumrad

Lay it on me.

Tracie Hunte

A- a- a dance that I should say, before I started reporting this story, I'd never seen. I kind of knew about it, saw it in the musical Oklahoma.

Jad Abumrad

It was inflicted on me in, uh, in, uh, grade school.

Tracie Hunte

I know.

Jad Abumrad

It's, yes, but I think that's just an inheritance from growing up in the South.

Tracie Hunte

W- well actually, no. It- it's not just a southern thing. Besides the fact that it somehow missed me in Miami, it was taught in pretty much every other school in the country.

Jad Abumrad

Huh.

Tracie Hunte

Quick scan of the audience. How many of you had to do square dancing in school?

Tracie Hunte

That's something that we actually confirmed later at the event.

Tracie Hunte

Oh my god. So many of you. (laughs)

Jad Abumrad

Wow, most of the audience.

Tracie Hunte

I feel like that was most of the audience, um...

Tracie Hunte

But the thing is, it doesn't just stop at schools. Square dancing is a state dance, or the state folk dance, in about 30 states. 30! Alabama, California, Idaho, Maryland, Oklahoma, Texas, Washington, and, and on, and on, and on. And on top of that, it's been pushed in front of congress on two separate occasions where people fought to make it the national folk dance of America, elevating it right up there with the Bald Eagle. By the way, that's a Red Tail Hawk, because Eagles do not sound as cool as we think they do.(laughs)

Tracie Hunte

And, you know, square dancing isn't exactly what we thought it was either.

Jad Abumrad

Hmm.

Tracie Hunte

Um, I mean, you know, it, it didn't really, kind of, mesh with my idea of America, exactly. But, when I started digging, and I went super deep, I gotta say, it kind of messed with some of my ideas of my America and your America and our America.

Jad Abumrad

Hmm. Okay.

Tracie Hunte

So, just to, uh, get things started off, I'm going to take you back to the 1890s or 1890 ish.

Phil Jamison

In the late 1800s there were many immigrants coming to this country from southern and eastern Europe.

Tracie Hunte

According to folk dance scholar, Phil Jamison, at that time a new wave of immigrants were coming to America.

Phil Jamison

Italians and Slavs and Polish people and Jewish people.

Tracie Hunte

And they were seen as very different from the earlier waves of English and Irish and German immigrants.

Phil Jamison

And the old stock Americans started to push back against these immigrants and say, wait a minute, we are the real Americans. Our ancestors were here first. And, you know, think of ei- 1890s, when the Daughters of the American Revolution was founded...

Tracie Hunte

We were a generation past the Emancipation Proclamation and the Trail of Tears and in 1892...

Phil Jamison

The Pledge of Allegiance was put into our public schools.

Tracie Hunte

And so, Phil says around this time, there was a national conversation bubbling up about who we, as Americans, are. Like, when we say us, who is us?

Phil Jamison

Well...

Tracie Hunte

According to Phil, one answer to that question came from a music scholar.

Phil Jamison

An English ballad collector named Cecil Sharp who came to the southern mountains.

Tracie Hunte

From about 1916 to 1918, he went all around the Appalachian Mountains in the southern U.S. visiting families, sitting on front porches, and asking people to sing.

Folk Singer

(Singing)

Phil Jamison

And was astounded that people were still singing old British ballads that had long since died out in England.

Folk Singer

(Singing)

Phil Jamison

They were singing about Barbara Ellen and they were singing about lords and ladies and b- white steeds and bloody daggers, and all that.

Tracie Hunte

Now, this is interesting to him because Sharp's idea, and he wasn't alone in this, is that the people living in Southern Appalachia, the white people living there-

Phil Jamison

These people had been isolated here in the mountains for generations.

Tracie Hunte

... and were therefore the keepers of the purest, Anglo-Saxon heritage in America.

Folk Singer

(Singing)

Phil Jamison

And when he was in eastern Kentucky-

Tracie Hunte

... he came across that pure heritage and dance form.

Phil Jamison

He came across some people doing a square dance that was, it was a demonstration for him.

Tracie Hunte

And the thing about this, uh, dance that he was seeing, it had some elements of French dances.

Phil Jamison

French cotillions and quadrilles and-

Tracie Hunte

Where six couples would be in some sort of formation, holding hands, moving in a circle. But also parts of it that looked like Scots-Irish and English country dances, where couples would link arms and skip around each other, then make arches for other couples to duck through. So, all these different moves were coming together in this one dance he was seeing happening right in front of him.

Phil Jamison

And he just made this assumption that these were Anglo-Saxon people, and this is the folk dance of our ancestors.

Tracie Hunte

Now, obviously, there were a lot of different kinds of people living in those mountains that he was ignoring. But despite that, or maybe more like because of it, this idea that square dancing was quintessentially American just took off.

Phil Jamison

And shortly after that is when they started teaching folk dances in schools.

Tracie Hunte

So, the first place I heard any of this was this Tweet thread that was very tantalizing. It sort of pegged Henry Ford as the mastermind behind this white supremacist plot-

Jad Abumrad

Oh, okay.

Tracie Hunte

... to put square dancing in all the schools in order to, like, save white children from jazz or something.

Jad Abumrad

Oh, I see. So this was an attempt at white washing.

Tracie Hunte

Basically, yes.

Jad Abumrad

Got it.

Tracie Hunte

Now, first of all, Henry Ford was an anti-Semite and for some reason thought Jews had invented jazz and hated jazz, and he tried to promote dances from, quote, northern peoples, but-

Phil Jamison

Henry Ford had nothing to do with teaching square dancing in physical education classes.

Tracie Hunte

... that part of the Tweet thread isn't quite true. But the white washing part isn't exactly wrong. It was actually one dance educator in Michigan-

Phil Jamison

Grace Ryan in Michigan.

Tracie Hunte

... who started teaching the square dance-

Phil Jamison

... as a way to assimilate the children of European immigrants to be true Americans.

Tracie Hunte

More teachers picked it up. She wrote some books. And that kind of popularized it around the country among teachers, and, before you knew it, bam, square dancing in schools.

Announcer

From Tuscumbia, Missouri, they call themselves The Lake of Ozark Square Dancing.

Tracie Hunte

And then the dance started to spread.

Announcer

You all set? All right.

Tracie Hunte

People were dancing in community halls, and public squares, and churches, and barns. By the '30s, square dancing is all over the radio.

Announcer

Hey, hey.

Radio Ad

Places, all.

Tracie Hunte

Square dance is to...

Radio Ad

All join hands, circle left.

Tracie Hunte

You know, you could just go to YouTube and, like, Google Lucky Strike Square Dancing and you see this, like, really weird commercial where there's actually, like, cigarettes doing the square dance.

Radio Ad

... around we go, Lucky Strike means fine tobacco.

Tracie Hunte

By the '40s and '50s, it's huge!

News Announcer

The square dancing craze sweeping across the nation keeps on growing in New York in a big way.

Tracie Hunte

Square dancing clubs start forming all over the place.

News Speaker

... from Burbank, California.

Tracie Hunte

Out west, it starts to get a little yee-haw with men in cowboy shirts and boots and women in big, fluffy skirts.

News Speaker

It's so beautiful.

Tracie Hunte

In 1951, they form a national organization that puts on this national square dancing convention where tens of thousands of people gather from all over the country and square dance together.

News Announcer

Square dancing is part of the heritage of the United States. Born, uh, with the very birth of the country.

Tracie Hunte

And then...

News Announcer

The square dancers of America want something from congress. They want their dancing, square dancing, officially named the national folk dance of the United States.

Tracie Hunte

These groups went to congress to say that square dancing should be the American dance.

Leon Panetta

Square dance is, indeed, uniquely American. It's American American.

Tracie Hunte

And actually it was officially the national folk dance from 1982 to 1983. So, I really wanted to talk to the people who were a part of this effort, but a lot of them are dead, so...

Jad Abumrad

You mean, oh, so this is an old movement?

Tracie Hunte

This is an old movement. But-

Leslie

This is Leslie.

Tracie Hunte

I did manage to find the congressman-

Leon Panetta

Here's the door.

Leslie

He is coming right in, oh-

Tracie Hunte

... who introduced some of these bills.

Leslie

Sorry, here you go.

Leon Panetta

Okay.

Tracie Hunte

His name is...

Tracie Hunte

Hello.

Tracie Hunte

.. Leon Panetta.

Leon Panetta

Hey, how are you, Tracie?

Jad Abumrad

Uh, wait.

News Announcer

The former Secretary of Defense and former director of the CIA, Leon Panetta.

Jad Abumrad

The Leon Panetta?

Tracie Hunte

The, th-

Jad Abumrad

The Clinton Leon Panetta?

Tracie Hunte

The Clinton Leon Panetta, former White House chief of staff.

Leon Panetta

So I think this is the moment for a strong, steady hand.

Tracie Hunte

Usually these days, he's on CNN answering hard questions about drones.

Leon Panetta

Responsibility of the intelligence community.

Tracie Hunte

National security.

Leon Panetta

It has to be comprehensive. It has to involve-

Tracie Hunte

So I think he was a little surprised when I called him up and said, you know, hey, you want to talk about square dancing?

Leon Panetta

Well (laughs) it came out of, it came out of nowhere. It brought back... (laughs)

Jad Abumrad

He introduced the bill about square dancing?

Leon Panetta

(laughs)

Tracie Hunte

Yep.

Leon Panetta

Well, uh, I- I've actually did folk dancing when I was in, uh, grammar school. And, uh, and enjoyed it then and, uh, always, uh, kind of k- kept track of, uh-

Tracie Hunte

Back in the 1980s he was a congressman out of California.

Leon Panetta

And there was a couple that, uh, were involved in folk dancing. George and Ann Holtzer, I believe, were their names.

Tracie Hunte

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Leon Panetta

And-

Tracie Hunte

He had, uh, some square dancers who were very supportive of his campaigns so it was very much a politically, kind of, like-

Jad Abumrad

Oh...

Tracie Hunte

... favorish type of thing.

Leon Panetta

Uh, they came to me, uh, with the idea.

Tracie Hunte

But he was actually pretty, kind of, passionate about when I was talking to him.

Leon Panetta

Oh, yeah. I thought it made sense to try to establish and recognize it as, uh, the national folk dance.

News Announcer

Well on the face of it, all that sounds harmless enough.

Tracie Hunte

But-

News Announcer

But wait minute.

Tracie Hunte

... there was this kind of immediate, very muscular opposition to this bill.

News Announcer

This house sub-committee suddenly discovered that about the only people who would be happy to commemorate square dancing are square dancers.

Tracie Hunte

One by one, dance historians, folklorists got in front of the mic and said, you gotta be kidding me.

Testimony 1

To make folk dancing a national dance, to me, would be a slap in the face to other arts.

Tracie Hunte

This makes absolutely no sense.

Testimony 2

This is a nation of immigrants.

Tracie Hunte

The United States is a country filled with a lot of different kinds of people from a lot of different parts of the world.

Testimony 2

To single out a dance that represents even a very small fraction of British origin immigrants would be insulting to every other cultural group in this country.

Tracie Hunte

Everyone was like, square dancing? Seriously? What about hula.

News Announcer

Is that a folk dance?

Tracie Hunte

What about tap?

News Announcer

Or for that matter, break dancing, as an expression of urban folk culture.

Tracie Hunte

Not to mention, the people who were here first, Native Americans, who have their own dance traditions. Um, you know, one bit of testimony that actually stuck with me was from the 1988 hearing. Um, it was a woman named Rayna Green. She was, at one time, the head of the American Folklore Society and she is a member of the Cherokee Nation, and she said, "My grandmother has only ever done the square dance in schools." Um, that's the only place she ever did it, um, and at the same time, she was forbidden from doing her own tribal dances. And so, to come and say that square dancing is now the national folk dance would be to dishonor her and dishonor all her ancestors.

Jad Abumrad

And even, uh, just to put finer point on it, I mean, you take something like the massacre at Wounded Knee. I mean, that was the culmination of a series of events that I think began with a dance.

Tracie Hunte

Wow.

Jad Abumrad

Uh, so, it wasn't simply that they were being forgotten, I think they were being c-, they were being very violently suppressed at times. So the dance, the dance has... The question of what dance you do is, is not always, it- it's sometimes violent, you know?

Tracie Hunte

Yeah.

Jad Abumrad

So.

Tracie Hunte

I'm curious about, like, what would be your reaction to, to that argument?

Leon Panetta

Well I, I mean, I, I certainly appreciate, uh, Indian tradition and what happened to, uh, the Indians throughout history. I, uh, there's, there's no question how abused they were.

Tracie Hunte

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Leon Panetta

And the same time, it's important to recognize some of the things that make the United States what it is today. So I, I always remember de Tocqueville's comments, uh, when he came to this country and went to the frontier and, by the way, saw people folk dancing at that time.

Tracie Hunte

(laughs)

Leon Panetta

But he, he mentioned something that I think is particularly important. He said, the difference a- about America is that in, in those small communities, uh, throughout the west, people care for one another, they have a sense of community.

Tracie Hunte

Yeah. I, I don't think that that was, when de Tocqueville was here, and he was looking at the west, I don't think that that was much of a time of togetherness. I mean, plenty of Indian tribes were being driven off their land.

Leon Panetta

No, it was tough, it was a-

Tracie Hunte

I get- I g-, y- you know, I do-, I don't want to, like, start (laughs) you know, start a whole thing, but I guess it's just I, I'm kind of, don't want to have, like, a romanticized view of that time period.

Leon Panetta

No, I, I, uh, I don't think we have to have a romanticized view, I mean, uh, the fact remains that all of us in our communities do recognize the importance of helping one another. And that isn't romanticizing a damn thing. And, um, I just think at some point, uh, it would be a nice, uh, gesture to all of those that enjoy that to make clear that the United States recognizes that square dance is particularly unique to the history and to the culture of America.

Tracie Hunte

Well, I, I, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk about this, and-

Leon Panetta

Sure. (laughs) Yeah.

Jad Abumrad

That was a... I wish that that was slightly more satisfying response there.

Tracie Hunte

(laughs)

Jad Abumrad

I feel like you guys were not having the same conversation or something. That was, like-

Tracie Hunte

Yeah, to say the least. And it made me realize that, you know, maybe I shouldn't be talking a- to a politician. I should be talking to square dancers. And so I made some phone calls.

Tracie Hunte

Oh, are you Linda?

Linda Peterson

I'm Linda, hi.

Tracie Hunte

Oh hey.

Tracie Hunte

I traveled to the heartland of America. And...

Linda Peterson

Square dancers hug.

Tracie Hunte

Okay, all right.

Linda Peterson

That's called a yellow ross.

Tracie Hunte

Okay.

Tracie Hunte

What I found out about square dancing was actually really surprising.

Jad Abumrad

Like what?

Tracie Hunte

Well you're gonna have to wait 'til after the break.

Jad Abumrad

Oh, well then. RadioLab will continue in a moment.

Alicia Bridges

This is Alicia Bridges, calling from Saskatoon in Saskatchewan. RadioLab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.

Chris Garcia

Anybody have an American born kid? Okay, gonna talk about it, oh, man.

Chris Garcia

Hey, I'm Chris Garcia.

Chris Garcia

My son, Christian Andres Primitio Garcia, he goes by Chris. Yeah, okay, I believe it, man. (laughs)

Chris Garcia

For a long time, my dad was the center piece of my act. And then he died. And for the last two years, I've been trying to figure out what happened to him in Cuba. Those are secrets that he kept with him until the end. Listen to Scattered from WNYC Studios wherever you get your podcasts.

Jad Abumrad

I'm Jad, this is RadioLab, we are back from break with producer Tracie Hunte doing the dance of the square. Well, we haven't actually done the dance yet, that's coming. Uh, where we left off so far, uh, we'd seen what happened when, uh, a bunch of square dance, uh, evangelists took their cause to congress, pushed for square dance to be the American folk dance, people pushed back against that claiming, actually, no, the square dance leaves people out, it actually represents something truly painful in our country's past. That's where we left off.

Tracie Hunte

Yeah, but that was in the '80s, more than 30 years ago, and I wanted to see what was going on with square dancing today. And I was making a bunch of calls and I eventually talked to this one woman named Linda Peterson. She was part of the effort to make square dancing the state folk dance for the state of Maryland. And she invited me to the National Square Dancing Convention.

Tracie Hunte

All right. I'm in the lobby of the downtown Marriott.

Tracie Hunte

In Kansas City, Missouri in this huge convention center.

Tracie Hunte

Uh...

Tracie Hunte

People were just arriving. They had their suitcases. You can see, like, they were bringing in these costume racks, I guess, filled with big, huge skirts, western shirts, cowboy boots, lots of glitter. Lots of crinoline. A- and anyway, Linda and I had planned to meet in the lobby of this hotel.

Tracie Hunte

So hopefully she will notice that I'm the person with the big fuzzy microphone. Also, the black one.

Tracie Hunte

I will say that I did find black square dancers there. (laughs)

Jad Abumrad

You did?

Tracie Hunte

Um, I counted, while I was there, um, about, um, 11.

Jad Abumrad

Out of how many?

Tracie Hunte

Uh, about 3,000.

Jad Abumrad

Oh, wow, so... (laughs)

Tracie Hunte

Um. (laughs) I guess one in 3- 300.

Jad Abumrad

(laughs) That's a- that's, that's a ratio.

Tracie Hunte

Yeah. But, um, eventually.

Linda Peterson

You're not Tracie, are you?

Tracie Hunte

Oh, are you Linda?

Linda Peterson

I'm Linda, hi.

Tracie Hunte

Oh hey.

Tracie Hunte

Linda spotted me.

Linda Peterson

How are you?

Tracie Hunte

I'm good.

Linda Peterson

Square dancers hug.

Tracie Hunte

Okay. All right.

Tracie Hunte

And then she just takes me around. And she just starts-

Linda Peterson

This is Tracie.

Conference Goer

Hi Tracie.

Tracie Hunte

Hello, hello.

Tracie Hunte

Introducing me to everybody.

Conference Goer

Hi, glad to meet you.

Conference Goer

Hi, Tracie.

Tracie Hunte

In this square dance world-

Linda Peterson

Yeah.

Tracie Hunte

... each person was just-

Linda Peterson

Yes.

Tracie Hunte

... friendlier than the last.

Linda Peterson

(laughs)

Tracie Hunte

There was an opening ceremony.

Speaker

Dear heavenly father, we gather this day...

Tracie Hunte

Some speeches, a prayer.

Speaker

Enjoying in the light and happiness and fun.

Tracie Hunte

Eventually, we did finally get to see some dancing. And it sound like this.

Caller

Oh hey, walk on around to your corner girl. Seats on down your own. Show of hands, circle to the left around your own.

Jad Abumrad

Wow.

Caller

Oh now the mean start [inaudible 00:20:33] around, you know-

Tracie Hunte

And there's these super complicated calls and instead of the traditional fiddle band with a banjo and so on, they're actually playing '80s pop hits.

Jad Abumrad

Wow.

Tracie Hunte

And this is actually common. Um, I talked to this one caller who was like, yeah, I use J.Lo sometimes. (laughs) Um...

Jad Abumrad

Really?

Tracie Hunte

Yes. (laughs) I actually walked into one room where they were using Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah. Um, so th- they really do use, like, just all kinds of music. And, you know, it was just a long ways off, from like, you know, Oklahoma style western frontier version of square dancing that I had in my head. And when I started going around talking to people...

Tracie Hunte

We are public radio, so this is just my mic and I'm recording this, like, you know? (laughs)

Roy

That's a microphone?

Tracie Hunte

It is a microphone.

Tracie Hunte

It was also pretty clear that-

Roy

We have some sugar cookies.

Tracie Hunte

... this push to make it the national folk dance was kind of waning.

Roy

So, yeah, so after a while I think the square dance folks decided, you know what, let's let it, let's not stir up trouble, let's, let's keep a positive attitude and image for our activity.

Tracie Hunte

Uh, this is Roy. I talked to him and his wife Betsy Gotta.

Betsy Gotta

Right.

Tracie Hunte

Um, Betsy Gotta is kind of a big deal in the square dancing world. Um, anyway, they made it sound like they had heard the backlash and, sort of, in some way, kind of got the point.

Roy

Yeah, w- we were talking about that. And, and, and th- there were times when, when the square dance activity, um, to be perfectly honest, for a long time it was a white activity.

Tracie Hunte

I think that that's, does make, you know, someone like me who I'm, you know, I'm a black person, as you can probably tell-

Betsy Gotta

Right.

Tracie Hunte

... go, huh? Like (laughs) you know, why is, you know, why is this activity that's, you know, seemingly for and by and created by white people, why does that have to be the, the national American dance, you know? And it, and it kind of does feel, like, a little, like you're, you know, I'm being excluded or I'm being told that, you know, that this is what it means to be and American is... Yeah.

Roy

And, and, and a lot of people in our activity took heed of that and said, yeah, you know they th- there's a valid point. But we still kind of felt that it was the one dance form that, um, hopefully transcended all of that, because it is all inclusive. Granted, it wasn't.

Tracie Hunte

Yeah.

Roy

But then again, America wasn't an inclusive society.

Tracie Hunte

Yeah.

Betsy Gotta

And wh-, and what we kind of wanted to do was bring everybody in.

Tracie Hunte

Yeah. (laughs) Yeah.

Betsy Gotta

That was a, that was our strategy. We wanted to set the hook and reel everybody in to the group.

Tracie Hunte

Yeah, yeah.

Tracie Hunte

And what sort of came out for me over time was that for them, you know, being the national dance, it wasn't so much like trying to make this, like, piece of white culture, like, inshrine it into the, you know, some sort of national symbol. It was more about good marketing, you know? (laughs)

Betsy Gotta

You know, to make square dancing better, to get more people and keep 'em. You know?

Tracie Hunte

Numbers are declining, um...

Jad Abumrad

Yeah.

Tracie Hunte

And so, um, because-

Jad Abumrad

Interesting, so that's, so their idea was, this is a way to, uh, so th- it's not about let's white wash America, or maybe it was, but they, that wasn't the, sort of, spoken idea. It was more like, let's not die.

Tracie Hunte

Yeah. And, and, and while I was there, they really made a point about how square dancing is really, really just open and inclusive.

Dana Shirmer

What makes it unique to us-

Tracie Hunte

This is Dana Shirmer. He's, he was the president of CALLERLAB. That's the group that trains all the callers. And he's also the guy who said he uses J.Lo sometimes.

Dana Shirmer

I think it's there's, when you hear the music, and the first time you step in there and touch hands, the magic of just goes right through your hands. And you just feel the, the warmth and the friendliness of all the people in the group with you.

Tracie Hunte

Like, you come to the square and-

Dana Shirmer

You don't care who they are, where they came from, or what happens.

Tracie Hunte

Nobody knows anything about anybody else. But you all have to work together.

Dana Shirmer

You know, you're in the group, and you're gonna have fun.

Tracie Hunte

Yeah.

Dana Shirmer

And I don't look, I- I'm an accountant. I don't go out there looking for accountants.

Tracie Hunte

(laughs)

Dana Shirmer

I go out there and get in the square, what do you do? I'm a farmer, I'm a doctor, I'm a lawyer, you know. Doesn't matter. We have all kinds of people, and we're all gonna dance together.

Tracie Hunte

Yeah.

Dana Shirmer

It's a teamwork, you're doing something together as a team, yeah.

Tracie Hunte

Yeah. It's like a, like an equalizer, almost.

Dana Shirmer

Yeah. We're all together.

Tracie Hunte

This is something that I heard over and over and over again. That square dancing welcomes everyone, it doesn't matter who you are.

Roy

You don't worry about sexual orientation. You don't worry about color. You don't worry about where they're from. All you worry about is can they square dance, can they help me have a good time square dancing.

Tracie Hunte

Yeah.

Roy

That's, that's all that matters. So...

Betsy Gotta

Now I, I can remember when we were, we, the square dance world, were making some strides in opening out.

Tracie Hunte

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Betsy Gotta

In 1965, which was the year of Martin Luther King's march from Selma to Montgomery, the National Convention was in Dallas, Texas.

Tracie Hunte

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Betsy Gotta

And I was there. And the country in the South was scary enough. Oh, we drove through the South in a car from New Jersey and for a while we were followed because they thought we might've been outside agitators who were gonna register people to vote, or something.

Tracie Hunte

Wow.

Betsy Gotta

And we were just a family coming back from the square dance convention.

Tracie Hunte

Yeah.

Betsy Gotta

But for some reason, and I do not know the background, that was the year that a group of, of African American dancers from, I believe, the Detroit and or Chicago areas, decided to attend the National Convention.

Tracie Hunte

(laughs)

Betsy Gotta

This could've been very scary.

Tracie Hunte

Yeah.

Betsy Gotta

In that atmosphere.

Tracie Hunte

Yeah, yeah.

Betsy Gotta

But they were very smart.

Tracie Hunte

Yeah.

Betsy Gotta

And I watched them. I was just out of high school. And I watched them, and what they did was they never entered a square uninvited.

Tracie Hunte

Wow.

Betsy Gotta

They started a group. They'd stand on the floor and put up their hands with three fingers up, which means we need three couples-

Tracie Hunte

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Betsy Gotta

... and let people come to them who would be comfortable dancing with them.

Tracie Hunte

Yeah.

Betsy Gotta

And they never forced the issue. If three couples needed a fourth and they all said, come and join us, they would fill that square. And there was not a single problem at that convention and the, you know, the African American dancers had been part of, part of th- the activity since then.

Tracie Hunte

I'm going to let y'all go. Um...

Betsy Gotta

Thank you.

Tracie Hunte

Yeah.

Linda Peterson

Thank you.

Speaker

[inaudible 00:26:59]

Jad Abumrad

Huh. I mean, walking away from that, uh, visit, I, what did you make of all that, of the convention, the whole thing?

Tracie Hunte

Well, you know, it was a great experience. I felt very welcomed and everyone was really, really sweet. Um, but you know, it still kind of felt like it was welcome and come do our thing, you know?

Jad Abumrad

Yeah.

Tracie Hunte

And I have talked to some black square dancers and LGBTQ square dancers who, you know, didn't want to go on the record with me. But they said, you know, we don't really feel comfortable coming to this convention every year. And, um, all that, to just say that, you know, it just doesn't really necessarily feel like it could be, like, my dance. It's still kind of their dance.

Jad Abumrad

Yeah.

Tracie Hunte

But I talked to Phil Jamison after I went to the convention and Phil, if you remember, he was the guy who told us about Cecil Sharp in the mountains and, kind of, the traditional story about where square dancing comes from.

Phil Jamison

I often ask, you know-

Tracie Hunte

And during that conversation, he really kind of upended this whole idea of my dance or our dance and their dance.

Phil Jamison

I spent about 10 years of my life as a professional musician and dancer.

Tracie Hunte

So Phil was actually a musician and dancer for a long time, and he was actually part of this clog group called...

Phil Jamison

The Green Grass Cloggers. Uh, I was on the road for seven years with that group and we traveled all over the U.S. and overseas as well.

Tracie Hunte

And he says, a lot of times, after these performances, people would come up and ask him, you know, where did this dances, y- th- these folk dances, like the square dance, where did it come from?

Phil Jamison

And I, so I would, I'd go and look in books and try to, try to read up on the history of these dances and a- all the books that were out there, square dance books, just talked about the British Isles and the, you know, the, the hearty pioneers coming to the mountains with their dances.

Tracie Hunte

And, you know, they would basically tell the same story that he told us. You know, Cecil Sharp and how this dance is a combination of French and English and Irish dances. But at a certain point, Phil says...

Phil Jamison

It just didn't seem right to me because the population of Appalachia, uh, has never been pure white Anglo-Saxon, it's always been a mixed. Of course, there were Native American people there to begin with, but th- there were enslaved people with the earliest settlers. And there was slavery throughout the southern mountains and, you know, when you look at the musical traditions, uh, the fiddle is accompanied by the banjo and that has African roots. And you look at the vocal traditions...

Folk Singer

(singing)

Phil Jamison

Um, yes, people still sing the old British ballads, but they also sing...

Gospel Singer

(singing)

Phil Jamison

... gospel songs...

Blues Singer

(singing)

Phil Jamison

... tin can alley songs and minstrel songs.

Singer

Sing along.

Phil Jamison

All kinds of things. So, a- around 2001 I j-, I just started digging into it, and I just wanted to get to the bottom of the story and you know, y- figure it out.

Tracie Hunte

So Phil would end up spending 14 years looking at letters and-

Phil Jamison

... travel narratives, historical accounts...

Tracie Hunte

... and dance manuals. Anything he could get his hands on.

Phil Jamison

And what I discovered was there was an evolution of the dances that occurred during the 19th century and, uh, they're, you know, basically a multi-cultural hybrid that have elements of dances from the British Isles, reels, and there's African American and Native American influence as well, all in the mix.

Jad Abumrad

Oh. Well, w- what does he mean? Does he mean-

Tracie Hunte

Well, he means that they were all doing these dances, not just white people.

Phil Jamison

This was shared culture back in the day. You'd find African American folks dancing these dances and white folks dancing them and Native American folks were dancing them.

Tracie Hunte

And things from their own past would creep into this dance. For example, there's this one move in square dancing where you have one dancer in the middle and some people think this actually related to something called the ring shout, which is, like, a traditional dance from west and central Africa. And, you know, the crazy thing is, that he told me, the thing that makes the square dance the square dance-

Phil Jamison

Dance calling itself comes from the black tradition.

Blues Singer

(singing)

Phil Jamison

There's no evidence that that ever happened in the European dances, but there's a lot of call and response in African dances. And the earliest dance callers were all black fiddlers who were playing for dances.

Tracie Hunte

Basically, Phil told me that when you were back in Europe, the way you learned these dances was that you had a dancing master, you had a dancing school, you'd go to these schools and you learn all the steps.

Jad Abumrad

Yeah.

Tracie Hunte

But when you came to America, to colonial America, there weren't as many dancing masters and dancing schools to go around.

Jad Abumrad

Yeah, yeah.

Tracie Hunte

And so the way that the fiddlers who were performing at these dances could tell people what the next move was, was to call it.

Phil Jamison

And this was a way for people who didn't go to dancing schools to be able to do the dances.

Tracie Hunte

So, so you discovered that square dancing is a melting pot of dances?

Phil Jamison

Y- yes. Square dancing is definitely a, you know, so called melting pot dance. Um, but what, what happened and, in, by the 20th century is they basically, these traditions became white washed. And, uh, the black history behind it got, got forgotten.

Gospel Singer

(singing)

Jad Abumrad

Did anyone at the hearing make the argument that he was making?

Tracie Hunte

No. No, this is something that he's, kind of, um, discovered in the last few years.

Jad Abumrad

It is interesting, 'cause now you're like, hmm, maybe it should be the national folk dance. But, but I don't know, does it still feel like someone else's dance, that you just now have a small, like-

Tracie Hunte

Yeah I did-

Jad Abumrad

... side role?

Tracie Hunte

I did, I did, I, I still don't think that square dancing should be the national folk dance. (laughs)

Jad Abumrad

(laughs)

Tracie Hunte

Um, but I, and you know, I told Phil that, like, but I was, like, you know, if you told me that, you know, black people had something to do with this dance, that Native Americans had, uh, something to do with, like, kind of the development o-, uh, of this dance. Um, if you told me that, then I would say, oh, so that, actually this dance is a lot more American, you know, in that inclusionary way-

Jad Abumrad

Yeah.

Tracie Hunte

... that we, we would like to think of America as, than I would've thought. A- and maybe it wouldn't be such a bad idea. And then he pointed out, well, what about Latino people, what about Asian people, and what about-

Jad Abumrad

Sure.

Tracie Hunte

... you know? Like, once again, we're like, way too-

Jad Abumrad

Yeah.

Tracie Hunte

... multi-cultural a society to, like, just say...

Jad Abumrad

But what if-

Tracie Hunte

... this thing. Okay.

Jad Abumrad

What if you... I'm trying to be as, I'm trying to create a scenario that- that's the most inclusive thing possible.

Tracie Hunte

Okay.

Jad Abumrad

But it's not gonna, I'm not gonna get there. I'm gonna leave so many people out. But, but it's like-

Tracie Hunte

(laughs)

Jad Abumrad

... I don't know. I mean, couldn't it, couldn't, isn't there room in square dancing, in other words, for... If there's room for black people-

Tracie Hunte

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jad Abumrad

Um, well I shouldn't say room, I mean, if there w-, uh... What's the word? Well yeah, fine. If there's room for black people-

Tracie Hunte

Yeah, let's just-

Jad Abumrad

... there's certainly room for white people.

Tracie Hunte

Uh huh (affirmative).

Jad Abumrad

Um, why not create a square dance that's, uh, that's, that says, that's as diverse as America?

Tracie Hunte

I... I think-

Jad Abumrad

I mean, [crosstalk 00:34:46] a tap dance at a square dance, I mean, it's just, it's j- if it's all it is, is like, four people-

Tracie Hunte

You could, you could, you can tap dance in a square dance, you can clog in a square dance.

Jad Abumrad

Why not?

Tracie Hunte

Y- you can t-, you can find videos of people clogging in a square formation. Um...

Jad Abumrad

You could, I don't know, do modern dance in a square dance? That's a little harder, but maybe.

Tracie Hunte

It's a, it's a little harder, but-

Jad Abumrad

Ballet.

Tracie Hunte

Sure. (laughs)

Jad Abumrad

Hip hop dancing.

Tracie Hunte

I could see more hip hop dancing in a square dance. Well, okay, it was at this point that this conversation started to go somewhere that we decided, you know what, we should have a live show.

Tracie Hunte

Does anyone else have any, like, other ideas about, like, what's a fun group dance that we can all do together? Mm-hmm (affirmative). What did you say? The moon walk, okay, all right, all right, eh, problematic now, but whatever, you know. Documentary, but... (laughs) Any others? The Charleston? The twist?

Tracie Hunte

So we had done our introductory square dance with everyone and we told them this history.

Tracie Hunte

The what? The butt? Okay. (laughs)

Tracie Hunte

But then we heard about this one particular square dance call. And this is the one that's related to the ring shout, which I mentioned earlier.

Tracie Hunte

So Alex, um, let's talk a little bit about the last dance of tonight.

Tracie Hunte

So we brought our square dance caller, Alex Kramer, back on stage.

Tracie Hunte

It's gonna be a square dance, but at some point you're gonna use a call that's, um, what's the call gonna be?

Alex Kramer

Oh right, right, right. So, um...

Tracie Hunte

Did you forget already? (laughs)

Alex Kramer

So, so the dance is called Birdie in the Cage.

Tracie Hunte

Okay.

Alex Kramer

So, so the call is, the first call is put the birdie in the cage. And, um, so then what happens is if you're the birdie at the moment, you just, like, hop on in to the c-, to the center of the circle and you get to do your special dance.

Tracie Hunte

It can be the YMCA, the debutt, the debutt.

Alex Kramer

The funky chicken.

Tracie Hunte

The funky chicken.

Alex Kramer

The floss.

Tracie Hunte

You can floss, you can milly rock, you can kid and play, you can...

Alex Kramer

Twerk.

Tracie Hunte

(laughs) You can twerk. Um...

Alex Kramer

You can nae nae.

Tracie Hunte

You can what?

Alex Kramer

Nae nae.

Tracie Hunte

Nae nae, yeah, absolutely.

Alex Kramer

Dougie.

Tracie Hunte

Um, so that's what we're gonna do. We're gonna do a little square dance and then he's gonna say, Birdie in the Cage, and then everyone's gonna do whatever the F you want. (laughs)

Alex Kramer

Right. Show us what you're working with.

Tracie Hunte

Okay.

Alex Kramer

And join hands, circle left, circle to your left. Round you go. Back to the right, don't take all night. Go into the center with a great big shout. Do it again, do it again. Swing your partner all about. Promenade, promenade, go around the town any old way but upside down.

Tracie Hunte

Were you dancing?

Jad Abumrad

Yeah! I was trying, I was trying to.

Alex Kramer

Couple one, have some fun. Couple one. Go off to the right, circle left with couple two, birdie in the cage. Couple one, couple two, circle to the left.

Jad Abumrad

I remember it was just chaos. (laughs)

Tracie Hunte

Yeah.

Jad Abumrad

It was, like, crazy chaos.

Alex Kramer

Bird hop out and crow hop in.

Jad Abumrad

'Cause, like, he was doing these calls and we were swinging around and, like, you kind of want to get your dance going in the middle but then you don't have enough time and then you throw off the rhythm and then suddenly it all falls apart.

Tracie Hunte

(laughs)

Jad Abumrad

But then he, he'll do a call and everyone snaps back onto the beat.

Alex Kramer

Circle to the left. Birdie in the cage.

Tracie Hunte

Yeah, I was standing off, I had gotten off the stage and I was standing off to the side, leaning against the wall and trying to just stay out of peoples' ways 'cause there was a lot of limbs flailing around.

Jad Abumrad

Yeah, there was.

Tracie Hunte

Um, from where I was standing, when people got into the middle, but when the birdie got into the middle of the cage, the birdie was usually just hopping around and jumping up and down.

Jad Abumrad

(laughs) I know.

Tracie Hunte

(laughs) And so...

Jad Abumrad

'Cause you didn't have much time. You were just like, I gotta do my thing. And then I gotta get out.

Alex Kramer

Circle left, around you go. Last change, birdie number four, show us what you're working with.

Tracie Hunte

And so, whatever our national dance is, I guess it's just, um, people hopping around a lot, until... (laughs)

Jad Abumrad

(laughs)

Tracie Hunte

Until it's not their turn to hop around anymore.

Alex Kramer

Now swing your partner all about.

Tracie Hunte

Yeah.

Jad Abumrad

It was just a hot mess. But it was the happiest hot mess I've been a part of in a long time. Kind of beautiful.

Tracie Hunte

Yeah. Really beautiful. One more thing. You know, as I was going through all this, I kind of just stumbled into this community of African American musicians who were really embracing this kind of, this, um, old time music, this folk music-

Jad Abumrad

Yeah.

Tracie Hunte

... and really reclaiming it. And, um, one of those musicians was Jake Blount. And he actually performed for us at that live event. He is a fiddler.

Tracie Hunte

So, you're gonna perform a song for us. Um, can you tell us a little bit about it?

Jake Blount

Yes, it's called Poor Black Sheep and it comes from a black banjo fiddle duo, Nathan Frazier and Frank Patterson, who were from Nashville, Tennessee. Were recorded in, I think, 1946. And, uh, I learned this tune from them via my teacher and friend Rhiannon Giddens.

Tracie Hunte

So, um, I thought it'd be a really cool idea if we just, like, played his song. Um...

Jad Abumrad

Yeah, totally.

Tracie Hunte

And say, thank you, Jake.

Jad Abumrad

I loved his description of, I keep thinking about when he said, when he plays, it's like his brain moves into his arm.

Tracie Hunte

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jad Abumrad

'Cause I was like, when you hear it, you hear this, and you're like, oh yeah, he's just all arm.

Jad Abumrad

Well, thank you Tracie.

Tracie Hunte

You're welcome.

Jad Abumrad

This episode, of course, was reported by Tracie Hunte and produced by Annie McEwan and, uh, we also had, uh, uh, an assist on the sound design mix from Jeremy Bloom.

Tracie Hunte

Also, I just want to say thank you to Lee Ellen Friedland, Bob Dalsemer, Alex Kramer, our caller, our amazing band from the live event, Stephanie Coleman, Courtney Harmon, and Steph Jenkins. And Phil Jamison has a book out called Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics: Roots and Branches of Southern Appalachian Dance. Um, you should definitely check that out. Thanks.

Jad Abumrad

Wow.

Tracie Hunte

Oh! And, um, one more thing before we go. Well, we did this interview with Phil Jamison and he talked about Cecil Sharp being in Appalachia and hearing these, like, old English ballads, you know, that came from over there and that ended up right here, you know, in America, and just being, having his mind blown. And one of the songs that he actually mentions and that we play a little bit in the piece is Barbara Allen.

Jad Abumrad

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tracie Hunte

And I actually found a, like, b- Dolly sang Barbara Allen. She actually recorded it. (laughs)

Jad Abumrad

Yeah, she, uh, she sang it to me in one of our interviews.

Tracie Hunte

She sang Barbara Allen to you?

Jad Abumrad

Yeah. This is one of the amazing things about, as a, uh, interviewing Dolly is that suddenly she just starts singing.

Tracie Hunte

(laughs)

Jad Abumrad

But, like, she sang her way through the entire interview. Like I didn't even get a question in.

Tracie Hunte

I feel like singing is talking for her, I think. (laughs)

Jad Abumrad

Oh, it's amazing. It's amazing. And she, yeah, she sang that and all of these old ballads that sh-, that were sang to her.

Tracie Hunte

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jad Abumrad

Um, when she was just a little girl in, uh, Sevierville. So yeah, I think actually that's gonna be in our next episode, in Episode Three of the Dolly Parton's America series. Um...

Tracie Hunte

Perfect.

Jad Abumrad

You will hear her singing, a lot.

Tracie Hunte

Okay.

Jad Abumrad

Those, those, those old ballads have, like, 15 verses. Oh my god, you could sing that thing from morning until lunch time, and you still wouldn't be done.

Voicemail

To play the message, press two.

Alex Kramer

Hi RadioLab, this is Alex Kramer, your square dance caller, calling in from sunny Brooklyn, New York.

Phil Jamison

Hi, this is Phil Jamison in Asheville, North Carolina. RadioLab is created by Jad Abumrad with Robert Krulwich and produced by Soren Wheeler.

Alex Kramer

Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Suzie Lechtenberg is our executive producer.

Phil Jamison

Our staff includes Simon Adler.

Alex Kramer

Becca Bressler.

Phil Jamison

Rachael Cusick.

Alex Kramer

David Gebel.

Phil Jamison

Bethel Habte.

Alex Kramer

Tracie Hunte. Nora Keller.

Phil Jamison

Matt Kielty.

Alex Kramer

Annie McEwan.

Phil Jamison

Latif Nasser.

Alex Kramer

Sarah Qari.

Phil Jamison

Arianne Wack.

Alex Kramer

Pat Walters and Molly Webster. With help from Shima Oliaee.

Phil Jamison

  1. Harry Fortuna.

Alex Kramer

Sarah Sandbach.

Phil Jamison

Malissa O'Donnell.

Alex Kramer

Neil deMause. Marion Renault.

Phil Jamison

And Paloma Moreno Jiménez.

Alex Kramer

Our fact checker is Michelle Harris.

Phil Jamison

And that's it!

Alex Kramer

Thanks.

Phil Jamison

So promenade right off the floor, that's all there is, there ain't no more.

Voicemail

End of message.